“Oh, Norm, don’t you think there’s been some mistake about that?”
“You ought to know. It was you that Jimmy phoned about it.”
“Yes. I just hate to believe it, but he phoned just as soon as Mrs Shillito was out of his office. She’s the Vambraces’ next-door neighbour, and she practically saw everything. And Jimmy told it to me just as she told it to him. She was in getting her lower plate tightened up a little bit, so she was able to talk all the time he was working on it. And she swears it’s true.”
“She actually saw Vambrace break the stick over Pearlie’s head?”
“Not over her head, her back.”
“Ah, well, psychologically that makes all the difference. I mean, even where on her back makes a difference. I mean, if he hit her over the shoulders it might have been just rage, but if he hit her over the fanny it was definitely sex.”
“You mean there’s sex between Pearlie and her father?”
“Honey, you’re a trained recreationist; you know that there’s a lot of sex everywhere.”
“Oh, Norm, how awful. I mean, imagine!”
“Jimmy said Mrs Shillito actually saw it, did he?”
“No, her husband saw it. At least, he heard an awful noise, and went to his front door, and there was Vambrace walloping Pearlie with the stick. And a car was dashing away which must have been Solly’s car, because he drove her home from here, remember? And old Mr Shillito ran out and found the stick, and it was one of those blackthorn sticks, smashed in two over Pearl’s body. And you know what awful thorns those sticks have, and she was wearing just a thin dress and a short coat, so the lacerations must be something awful.”
“It makes you think, doesn’t it? I mean, right here in Salterton, among university people — that kind of thing, that you only associate with case histories.”
“Norm, after a thing like that, do you suppose they could ever be really happy?”
“Well, I couldn’t say, honey-bunch. But I’ll go this far: it doesn’t look too good.”
There was silence for a time, until Norm felt a wetness on his shoulder.
“Lambie-pie! What’s the matter?”
“I just can’t bear to think of those two having such a tough time, when we’re so lucky!” And the good-hearted Dutchy sobbed loudly.
“Oh, honey, that’s wonderful of you! Gee, that’s just wonderful. Come on, now, cheer up. Give daddy a smile. Come on, just a little, teentsy-weentsy smile.”
“How can I smile when there’s so much unhappiness in the world?”
“Well, take that attitude, peachie, and everybody would commit suicide. It’s not normal to take other people’s troubles so hard.”
“Yes, but Norm, these are people we know.”
“Well, now, you cheer up, honey, and we’ll see what we can do.”
“Aw, Norm, do you really mean you can do something?”
“Well, for heaven’s sake, isn’t that our whole life? Isn’t that what we’re trained for?”
“You mean you think we could do some social engineering, and make everything jake for those two poor kids?”
“We can certainly try. Now it’s plain that the place to relieve the pressure is with Professor Vambrace himself. His attitude simply isn’t normal. I don’t like to butt into a man’s private life, but this thing is bigger than our personal feelings. I’ll just have to go to him and explain to him what’s biting him.”
“Oh, Norm! I think you’re wonderful!”
“Yes, I’m going to have to explain to the Professor about the Oedipus Complex.”
“It’s rather a complicated concept. And, honey, I don’t want to talk about it right now.”
“Gee, Norm, I think you’re just the most wonderful person!”
“Don’t wriggle around like that.”
“I’m going to get up and get us some coffee and stuff.”
“No, you’re not.”
“You mean you don’t want to eat?”
The Cobblers lived in a row of small, impermanent-looking houses, all exactly alike and all — though not more than a few years old — with an air of weariness, like children who have never been strong from birth, and have a poor chance of reaching maturity. Molly Cobbler opened the door to Solly’s knock, and in her usual silent fashion nodded to him to follow her upstairs.
When they entered the bedroom Humphrey Cobbler was invisible, but in the old-fashioned bed, shaped rather like an elegant sleigh, a heap of bedclothes showed that he was sitting up and bending forward, and a strong smell, and some very loud sniffings and exhalations, made it clear that he was inhaling the fumes of Friar’s Balsam.
“Come along, now; you’ve had enough of that,” said his wife, unveiling him. His mop of black curls was more untidy than ever, and the steam had given his face a boiled look.
“Bridgetower, you find me very low,” said he.
Solly said that he was sorry.
“I have a cold. It would be nothing in another man, but in me it is an affliction of the utmost seriousness. I cannot sing. Suppose I lose my voice entirely? I am not one of your fraudulent choirmasters who tells people how to sing; I show ’em. I’m at a very low ebb. Don’t come near me, or you may catch it. You wouldn’t like a precautionary sniff of this, I suppose?” He held out the steaming jug of balsam.
“I’ve brought you the only reliable cold cure,” said Solly, producing a bottle of rye from his pocket.
“Bridgetower, this is an act of positively Roman nobility. This is unquestionably the kind of thing that Brutus used to do for Marc Antony when he had a cold. God bless you, my dear fellow. We’ll have it hot, for our colds. Molly, let’s have hot water and lemon and sugar. Would you believe it, Bridgetower, I have been so improvident as to fall ill without a drop of anything in the house?”
The invalid looked very much better already, and was now sitting up in bed in a ragged dressing-gown, wrapping up his head in a silk square which obviously belonged to his wife.
“Have a chair, my dear fellow. Just throw that stuff on the floor. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this visit.” He fetched a large and unpleasant-looking rag from under his pillow and blew his nose loud and long. “E flat,” said he, when he had finished. “Funny, I never seem to blow twice on the same note. You’d think that the nose, under equal pressure, and all that, would behave predictably, but it doesn’t. See this?” He held out the rag. “Piece of an old bedsheet; never blow your nose on paper, Bridgetower. Save old bedsheets for when you have a cold. They’re the only comfort in a really bad cold, and the only way of reckoning its virulence. I consider this to be a two-sheet cold.”
By this time his wife had returned, with glasses, lemon and sugar, and an electric kettle which she plugged into an outlet in the floor. Solly chatted to her, and Cobbler plied the bedsheet, until the water was hot and the toddies mixed.
“Aha,” roared the invalid, who seemed to grow more cheerful every minute. “This calls for a toast! What’ll it be?”
“It had better be to Solly’s engagement,” said Molly. “After all, it’s his whisky.”
“Engagement? What engagement? Oh, yes, I remember. I heard about it last night, but this pestilent rheum knocked it right out of my head. Who are you supposed to be engaged to, Bridgetower?”
“Pearl Vambrace was the name given in the paper,” said Solly, watching Cobbler very closely.
“That’s nonsense,” said Cobbler. “I simply don’t believe it.”
“Nor do I,” said Solly. “But why don’t you?”
“It’s psychologically improbable, that’s why. You are, as everybody within a fifty-mile radius knows, an ardent but unsuccessful suitor for the hand of Miss Griselda Webster. Very well. Suppose you do get some sense? Suppose you do get it into your head that she will never marry you if you both live to be a hundred? Very well. You bounce. On the rebound you get engaged to somebody else. But would that somebody else be Pearl Vambrace? Most certainly not! Intuition and reason alike are outraged by such a supposition.” And here Cobbler took a very big drink of his boiling toddy, and for the next few minutes Molly and Solly were busy patting his back, fanning his face and assuring him that he would survive.
“What I mean to say,” he continued in a whisper, mopping his eyes with his piece of sheeting, “is that Pearl Vambrace is not the kind of girl to catch any man on the rebound. Such girls are either the soft, squeezy kind, who secrete sympathy as a cow secretes milk, or scheming old mantraps who will accept a man when he’s not himself.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear you say so,” said Solly, “for somebody put a notice in the paper that I am engaged to her, and there is a very strong body of opinion which thinks that that person was you.”